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On Writing Schedules: Passion, Discipline and Salami

Ballet class 5 by Oude School.

photo by Oude School photo offered under Creative Commons license

My mother was a great cello player in her day – I have a picture of her accepting a music scholarship award from Golda Meir in Jerusalem.  And I wasn’t a bad ballet dancer myself back in the day.  But both of us had the same fatal flaw that prevented us from taking our art to the next level: we leaned on passion rather than discipline.  I loved to dance, but I wasn’t consistent enough in my practice to fully realize the talent I had. 

Much as I loved dancing, and still do, I am a writer first, and I am determined to learn how to marry passion and discipline together.  But to be honest, dear reader, it does not come naturally to me.  I am an adrenaline junkie, I love the thrill of nailing an impossible deadline as the little birds begin singing glory, hallelujah outside my window.  My preferred method for finishing a book is to go deep, disappear into the thickets, and come out a month later, bloodied but triumphant, with an entire manuscript in hand.

But I can’t do that anymore, not without some dire consequences.  There are munchkins to feed, meals to cook, not to mention the business related aspects of writing.  I also drive a minivan, and don’t want to drive off a cliff one fine morning because of extreme sleep deprivation and associated writer madness.  Passion will see you through to the end of a project.  Without it, what’s the point of writing, or painting, or dancing?  But to make a life out of the art you practice, to survive your art, you need a *practice.”

So, here are my secrets to building a writing life.  As always, your mileage will vary, and I confess I sometimes only honor the below rules in the breach.  This is what I know works, but I sometimes fall short at achieving all this myself.  Take what works, leave the rest.  And what works for one project may not do the trick for another.

 1.  Have a clear goal

If you have a contract with a due date, that will do nicely :-)  But you don’t need a sale to motivate you to finish your writing – in fact, it is crucial you learn how to finish your pieces in deference to an inner compulsion.  You are the captain of your writing ship – you are in charge of what you work on next, and when you want it to be finished.

So, have a clear goal of what you want to accomplish, and the time frame in which you want to finish.

 2.  Salami List

When I was first starting out as a writer, I would do a great job at #1 above.  I’d have a heartbreakingly clear, vivid picture in my mind of the book, story or article I wanted to write.  But it would loom, like Everest, in my mind whenever I would think of it.  And without the tools to climb to the summit, I would back away and the entire visionary mountain would slowly evaporate back into the mist.

Don’t let this happen to you!  Make a date with yourself to both finalize your goal, to make it concrete, and also to break it down into little, bite size pieces.  Slice the salami of your goal into nice thin slices, ones you can tackle in single sessions.  I call the resulting list “The Salami List,” but you can call it something more adult and less stinky, something like “The Action Plan” or “Task List.”  I prefer salami – anything that gets me less grim and serious about my work is something I embrace, even salami.

 3.  Salami/Calendar transfer

Take your handy-handy calendar (I use the monthly one that is issued by my kids’ school) and figure out when you can start taking a chunk out of that salami, one bite at a time.  Be kind…give yourself vacations, daydreaming time, and lots of buffer time so that you can hit your deadline date with ease.  Because Murphy’s Law is *always* in effect, and old man Murphy will rob you of precious days, hours, minutes. 

In order for this to work, you also have to be clear about the spaces in your calendar you have reserved for writing.  Stephen King in his fantastic book ON WRITING recommends blowing up your TV and committing to a word page goal every day (he suggests starting with 1,000 words per day), six days per week.  He also suggests picking a consistent time every day for writing – the Muse will eventually get the memo and meet you there.  Until the Muse shows up, you can just work your plan and knock out the salami, one slice at a time.

I will be honest here – I am happiest when I do just as King advises.  Daily, sane, a little boring – but the stability in your practice will give you a platform to express your passion, go a little crazy, leap for the stars before returning to earth to eat your bagel and move on to laundry.

Sometimes life doesn’t give you the luxury of sanity.  In that case, you still work your plan, just find the little erratic bits of time you do have.  I will again be honest here and confess that I am not great at grabbing little moments for my fiction – these little time-gems are where my blogging gets done :-)

So there you have it – a salami slicing kit.  Here are some resources for you:  these people are the bodhisattvas of  the writing discipline:

Kristine Katherine Rusch:  Her Freelancer’s Survival Guide is fantastic – a great resource.  And her chapter on discipline touches on many of the points I raised above.

Her husband, Dean Wesley Smith, is a prolific author, and he also admits to being lazy, which warms this lazy writer’s heart :-)  He talks about setting goals and writing streaks here

April Kihlstrom is a goddess of time management for writers, and if I am not mistaken is the creator of the idea of writing a Book in a Week.  Here is an article that describes her methods, full of  tricks for squeezing writing time out of any schedule.

Wishing you both passion and discipline in your writing!   What is *your* secret  for creating a writing life that is sustainable?

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